Known for his reportedly purposely off-kilter hit, “Just a Friend,” Biz Markie passed away this week at age 57. In April 2020 Markie was hospitalized due to Type 2 diabetes complications. Later that same year, the rapper suffered a stroke, and there had been speculation that he had died. He had to announce that he was in fact, still alive. Now, however, the sad truth as announced by his representative, Jenni Izumi, is that he has died.
Born in Harlem, and raised in Long Island, Markie had an East Coast sound that inspired a new generation of rappers and energized fans of rap music. While some consider Markie a one-hit wonder for his song, “Just a Friend,” longtime fans of hip-hop understand that his reach went far beyond one track.
Biz Markie, the Juice Crew and beyond
Markie was part of an association of rappers known as the Juice Crew. It included Roxanne Shante, Big Daddy Kane, DJ Magic Mike, and Marley Marl and others. For many audiences, their introduction to the often-humorous rapper was through the 1986 single, “Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz” which featured the then-novelty art of beatboxing.
Beatboxing is oral percussive act of coordinating heavy inhalations and exhaling in a rhythmic way. Markie was not the only performer to do it – – The Fat Boys featured a “human beatbox,” but Markie’s talent in the grassroots art took him all the way to the big screen. In “Men in Black II” Markie played a beatboxing alien.
Late 1980s rap fans might also remember Markie for his 1988 debut album, “Goin’ Off.” Two songs remain classics from that album, “Vapors,” and “Nobody Beat the Biz.” That was followed by 1989’s “The Biz Never Sleeps,” features “Just a Friend.” The song’s content and video played up his sense of humor even more. He would earn the nickname “The Clown Prince of Hip-Hop.”
According to The New York Times, Rolling Stones and elsewhere, Markie did the singing of the chorus on “Just a Friend” because no one else showed up to do it. His improvised performance is marked by an earnest expression, but the off-kilter delivery helps audiences to feel the humor. The Clown Prince of Hip-Hop never seemed to take himself too seriously.
Outside of hip-hop, Markie also appeared on television. Shows as disparate as “Yo Gabba Gabba,” “Black-ish,” “Empire,” and others featured Markie as himself. He also appears on the Beastie Boys’ cover of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” The Flaming Lips and Kesha’s “2012 (You Must Be Upgraded),” and others.
Just a cursory rundown of Markie’s body of work shows that he had an appeal that started with, and was defined within hip-hop, but ultimately went beyond that genre. His humor, his talent, and his approach to music-making made Markie a cultural icon, an American original.